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Book Review: The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg

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The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg is an award winning historical fiction book, an amazing, somber, hard look at a Jewish ghetto in Poland during World War II. The book — which has several stories that might not intertwine, but certainly run parallel to one another — was translated from Swedish and tells about real life, yet includes fictional characters.

While a novel, the book’s research is amazing and I sometimes forgot I was reading about the fictitious lives of others. The author is inside the heads of the characters such as Adam Rzepin, who lives and tries to survive with his father and mentally ill sister, but will he? Furthermore, Sem-Sandberg keeps a watchful eye on the historical timeline and incorporates non-fiction documents into the narrative.

These concerns come into play in the storyline of The Emperor of Lies, set in the ghetto at Lodz, Poland, which has existed for two years. Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the Nazi nominated “elder of Jews” is asked to supply 20,000 Jews for deportation. The lies and shadows of this complex man cover many pages of this book.

And the mixing of fact and fiction that permeates the pages is always a tricky business, especially when writing historical fiction, as opposed to writing a fictional story which takes place in the past. There are many historical figures who go in and out of this book, such as Heinrich Himmler and the leader of the Warsaw ghetto Adam Czerniakow. Secretly I was waiting (in vain) for Mordechai Anilevich to make an appearance.

One of the main characters in the book, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the titular figure, is neither sympathetic nor relatable.i, who functions as the head of the ghetto and who was put in place by the Nazis, is a controversial figure to this day and even more so in The Emperor of Lies. There is no doubt that Rumkowski had found himself in some very difficult, unenviable positions, such as selecting ghetto residents for “deportation.”

The cast of characters in The Emperor of Lies is dazzling, some like Adam Rzepin we read a lot about, others like the ghetto’s smuggler king appear and disappear quickly from the pages. But for all the different aspects of this book, it is still a chilling look at the ghetto as it reconstructs its three-dimensional life in an honest and somber way.

The book is dark and disturbing, but it has some humor, such as a ghetto residents asking what they would do with guns because: “…however would we go about getting the Chairman’s permission to use them?”

Was Rumkowski working for the good of the Jews or the Nazis? Was he a collaborator? Those are some of the questions in The Emperor of Lies the reader has to answer for themselves.

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